Which Surprise Starter Could Emerge for Every NFL Team in 2019?
NFL teams return to the practice field in late July for training camp—a crucial period that establishes the pecking order at multiple positions across the depth chart.
Every year, we see players improve by leaps and bounds, elevating their statuses from reserves to starters. Backups, developing talents and middle-to-late-round draft picks have opportunities to claim a contested spot in the first unit.
Last offseason, the Carolina Panthers lost All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell during free agency. Leading up to the 2018 campaign, Greg Van Roten had played 20 games since going undrafted out of Pennsylvania in 2012; he took over the starting job.
Coming into the league as a fifth-round pick, defensive back Tre Flowers transitioned from safety at Oklahoma State to a starting cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks.
Van Roten and Flowers entered training camp as potential candidates to win position battles, but they didn't carry much buzz because of inexperience as a starter or draft placement.
We'll take a look at rookies and veterans who may rise to the challenge in a camp battle and become a surprise starter this summer.
Rookie first-round picks enter the league with high expectations, so they're excluded from the following selections. With the increasing number of starting slot wide receivers and cornerbacks, both positions are included below.
Arizona Cardinals: WR Hakeem Butler
The Arizona Cardinals picked an opportune time to overhaul their wide receiver unit. Larry Fitzgerald heads into his 16th season, and Chad Williams, a 2017 third-rounder, hasn't shown much, logging 20 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown.
Last year, the Cardinals selected Christian Kirk in the second round. In April, the front office added Andy Isabella (second round), Hakeem Butler (fourth round) and KeeSean Johnson (sixth round).
Fitzgerald and Kirk should be locks to claim two of the top three wide receiver positions. Isabella and Butler will likely battle for the third spot. Arizona's Day 2 choice at wide receiver wouldn't look good taking a backseat to one of the Day 3 picks or oft-injured veteran Kevin White.
Yet Butler has a real shot to crack the starting lineup in three-wide receiver sets. At 6'5", 227 pounds, he's a big-time playmaker. According to Pro Football Focus, he led the 2018 class in yardage (721) on deep receptions of at least 20 yards. Isabella placed second in the category (705).
Butler has one issue that knocks him a down notch below Isabella—drops. He acknowledged his fault at the end of his redshirt junior term. "It's just focus," he told reporters. "I know what it is. I've just got to correct it."
Isabella's speed and consistency in securing his targets should give him the edge over Butler in their first season together, but the coaching staff may favor the latter for chunk plays downfield.
Atlanta Falcons: OL Ty Sambrailo
Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Ty Sambrailo signed a three-year, $14.25 million extension in February, and he'll contest for the vacant slot at right tackle following Ryan Schraeder's departure.
Sambrailo will battle Kaleb McGary, a rookie first-rounder, for the starting spot. During spring practices, both took reps with the starters, but Atlanta moved up in the draft to select Sambrailo's primary competitor at the position. This battle should extend through the preseason.
Sambrailo has only started 13 career games in four seasons split between the Denver Broncos and Falcons. The 27-year-old may eventually fall behind McGary, who stands at a massive 6'7", 317 pounds with the ability to move big-body defenders against their will.
Sambrailo's experience may allow him to hold off McGary for at least a year, but he must flash starting-caliber talent once the intensity of practices levels up a notch in the summer. The Falcons plugged him into the right tackle spot in three of the last four games last year, and he fared well in spot duty.
Baltimore Ravens: OG Ben Powers
When the Baltimore Ravens return to the practice field for training camp, we should keep our eyes on a contested battle at left guard. James Hurst, Alex Lewis and rookie fourth-rounder Ben Powers will vie for the starting job.
According to head coach John Harbaugh, Hurst leads the group following mandatory minicamp.
"That's a competitive spot," Harbaugh told reporters. "Two weeks into training camp, after the first preseason game, we'll probably have a real feel for who we think is going to be the leader in the clubhouse there. But, I would say, for now, we don't have a leader. It would be James, if there's anybody. But that's an open position."
Hurst started the last four games and the AFC Wild Card matchup at left guard. Lewis opened 10 contests with the first unit at the position, but he battled neck and shoulder injuries during the season and underwent offseason surgery for the latter ailment. At Oklahoma, Powers started 34 contests at left guard.
We should consider Hurst and Lewis options one and two, giving Powers a slim chance to leapfrog the experienced offensive linemen. We can't discount the rookie because of his collegiate experience and a sturdy frame that will allow him to handle 300-plus-pound defensive tackles—both quick and powerful.
Powers may not have versatility comparable to Hurst or Lewis, but his narrow expertise could help him win the open job.
Buffalo Bills: RB Devin Singletary
Barring a trade, the Buffalo Bills backfield oozes with talent at different stages in their respective careers. General manager Brandon Beane signed Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon and selected Devin Singletary in the third round of this year's draft. They'll compete for carries with LeSean McCoy, who's coming off a career-low 514 rushing yards.
Gore, 36, and McCoy, 30, have played past their prime years. Yeldon hasn't averaged more than nine rushing attempts per game since his 2015 rookie term with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 5'7", 203-pound Singletary could carve out a major role within a group loaded with experience. Head coach Sean McDermott saw his potential on the practice field, as he told reporters:
"The vision, the balance, albeit without pads. He's made progress, you notice a little bit of who he is as a young man and what he brings to the table, how driven he is. That's where the size comes in. I think he's probably been this size for at least the last couple months if not years, and so that's not the first time he's heard it. He knows that there is a challenge there with that, of being able to protect the quarterback and I expect him to rise to the challenge."
Singletary's ability to pick up blitzes can put him in serious discussion to take over the lead role. McCoy remains the likely starter, but he's coming off a subpar campaign, leaving some space for the rookie to pull off a surprise.
Carolina Panthers: DB Cole Luke
The Panthers parted ways with two key components in the secondary: safety Mike Adams and slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
The coaching staff would like to see Rashaan Gaulden replace Adams at safety, but he'll face an upstart competitor this summer, per Joseph Person of The Athletic:
"Gaulden, last year's third-round pick, looks like he'll be given every opportunity to win the job. Gaulden took the first-team snaps during the spring. … There aren't a lot of other options on the roster. One possibility could be Cole Luke, who was injured for most of 2017 and spent last season on the practice squad, where he lined up at cornerback, nickel, safety and even wideout. Luke made several nice plays during minicamp at nickel."
Luke would pull off a huge shocker if he beats Gaulden for the spot alongside safety Eric Reid—or claims the nickelback position considering his inexperience.
Luke hasn't suited up for a regular-season football game since his senior term at Notre Dame in 2016. As a collegian, he registered 24 pass breakups and eight interceptions, showing off solid ball skills. The 23-year-old will have a chance to display his potential this summer.
Chicago Bears: CB Duke Shelley
Former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio accepted the head-coaching position with the Denver Broncos and took cornerback Bryce Callahan with him to the Rocky Mountains. The unit will feature a new slot defender.
The Bears signed cornerback Buster Skrine to a three-year, $16.5 million deal; he'll likely replace Callahan. The eight-year veteran logged eight pass breakups with the New York Jets last year and brings a wealth of starting experience to the secondary.
Rookie sixth-rounder Duke Shelley lined up on the outside at Kansas State, but he's confident in his fit for a spot on the inside.
"Nickel's a hard position to play, just because of where you're at on the field," Shelley told reporters. "There's more grass, more field to cover. Guys have opportunities to go two-way go on you and things like that. But my skill set fits it, being my size and how quick I am and the feet I have. The transition, I don't feel like will be hard for me."
Shelley registered eight interceptions—two returned for touchdowns—and 31 pass breakups in college. He must grasp the basics of his new role before challenging Skrine, a savvy veteran, for the starting spot in nickel alignment. With that said, the rookie should pose a strong threat to claim the position.
Cincinnati Bengals: LB Malik Jefferson
The Cincinnati Bengals' previous coaching regime didn't see much of linebacker Malik Jefferson at his natural position. He played 11 defensive snaps and 215 with the special teams unit through his rookie term.
Because of the turnover within the coaching ranks, Jefferson can't rely on his draft status (a 2018 third-rounder) to move up the depth chart. He'll face tough competition within a versatile group. Jordan Evans can line up on the inside or outside, and Germaine Pratt played safety and linebacker at North Carolina State.
According to Jay Morrison of The Athletic, Jefferson has been unable to take advantage of Pratt's absence during the spring (the rookie remains unsigned):
"Even with Pratt missing some time and the linebacker position being one of the thinnest on the team, Jefferson has been running mostly with the third string this spring. A slow start — attributable to an ongoing recovery from the toe injury that ended his rookie season in December — could be part of the reason, but it’s still a little surprising he hasn't worked his way into more reps."
Despite his unimpressive showing, Jefferson has physical traits that will keep him in the conversation to start in base alignment. At Texas, he registered 13 sacks and 26 tackles for loss through three terms, displaying sideline-to-sideline quickness against the run and pass-rushing qualities.
Assuming Jefferson fully recovers from his toe injury before training camp, he can rise from obscurity to a starting role on the second level of the defense.
Cleveland Browns: OG Kyle Kalis
The Cleveland Browns will give 2018 second-rounder Austin Corbett every chance to start at right guard in place of Kevin Zeitler, who was traded to the New York Giants. He's the notable name in what could develop into a contested battle at training camp.
Corbett and Kyle Kalis have alternated reps with the first unit through the spring, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot. The latter went undrafted out of Michigan in 2017. As a rookie, he started two games at right guard for the Indianapolis Colts before signing with the Browns' practice squad last year.
Head coach Freddie Kitchens sees a wide-open battle between Corbett and Kalis. "I think all those guys are legitimate contenders," he said during a media press conference. "I do not know. … You have only seen Kyle. I do not see it that way. They rotated every day. It just has not been the days that you guys have been out here."
Along with his two starts in Indianapolis, Kalis started 43 games at right guard on the collegiate level, which gives him a significant edge in position experience over Corbett, who played tackle at Nevada.
Based on draft pedigree, Kalis over Corbett seems like a shocker, but if we're focusing on functional technique at the position, the undrafted talent has a good shot to win this competition.
Dallas Cowboys: OG Connor McGovern
In 2018, Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Connor Williams experienced a rough rookie campaign moving inside to play guard. According to STATS (via the Washington Post), he allowed 4.5 sacks in 13 games, which included 10 starts.
Xavier Su'a-Filo took over the interior spot on both sides of the line and also struggled in pass protection, allowing six sacks, per STATs.
The Cowboys selected Connor McGovern in the third round of this year's draft to strengthen the interior of the offensive line, which bodes well for star running back Ezekiel Elliott in the ground attack. McGovern took reps at guard and center during the spring, per Bryan Broaddus of the team's official website (h/t David Helman).
"McGovern has been getting work at both center and guard during these offseason practices," Broaddus noted. "Right before minicamp, he suffered a pectoral injury that forced him to miss those last three workouts. With rest, McGovern should be good to go for training camp."
McGovern's injury pulls him closer to the surprise category, but he may impress the Cowboys coaching staff at full strength. If Williams continues to struggle with added bulk, watch out for the rookie who possesses adequate size and strength to man the position.
Denver Broncos: CB Isaac Yiadom
In 2018, Isaac Yiadom battled a shoulder injury during his rookie term and played 263 defensive snaps, logging three pass breakups and an interception in 13 games. Despite the addition of Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan, he could squeeze into a starting spot because of the fluidity in the secondary.
According to the Denver Post's Ryan O'Halloran, Jackson will line up in the slot and at safety. Callahan would likely take on perimeter coverage responsibilities in the nickel defense opposite Chris Harris Jr.
For most of his career, especially over the last two years under Fangio, Callahan lined up inside. If he's not efficient splitting out wide, Yiadom could make a case to start in the nickel alignment.
At this juncture, the pecking order isn't set in stone, which will allow a training camp standout to emerge in the secondary.
President of football operations and general manager John Elway selected Yiadom in the third round in 2018. Because of his draft status, the 23-year-old should have a chance to impress the new coaching staff.
Detroit Lions: CB Amani Oruwariye
At training camp, the Detroit Lions may have a huge question mark at cornerback because of Darius Slay's holdout; he didn't attend organized team activities or mandatory minicamp. Even if the All-Pro cover man shows up, the coaching staff must develop a starter opposite him.
According to Matthew Schoch of the Detroit News, Teez Tabor, Rashaan Melvin and Jamal Agnew manned the top three cornerback spots. "While Teez Tabor had had an up-and-down offseason as a starter opposite free-agent addition Rashaan Melvin on the outside and Jamal Agnew on the inside, [Amani] Oruwariye has spent time on the outside with reserve groups," he wrote.
Oruwariye seems like a long shot for a starting job, but head coach Matt Patricia favors size at cornerback, which bodes well for the rookie. He's 6'2", 205 pounds and ran a 4.47-second 40-yard time at the NFL Scouting Combine. Those physical attributes sound intriguing at a position that needs a playmaker with upside.
As a rookie fifth-rounder, Oruwariye would need a standout showing through the preseason to elevate his status. Nonetheless, Slay's uncertain future and Tabor's recent struggles give the Penn State product a sliver of hope to start Week 1.
Green Bay Packers: WR Equanimeous St. Brown
The Green Bay Packers will have a youth movement behind Davante Adams at wide receiver. The upstart group will compete for the No. 2 and 3 slots at the position.
According to ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison seem primed to take over the primary roles.
"If the mandatory minicamp revealed anything about the Packers' new offense, it's that the second-year pro is a starter," he wrote of Valdes-Scantling. "In fact, he probably is the No. 2 receiver behind Adams with Geronimo Allison likely slated as the slot man in the three-wide look."
Don't write off Equanimeous St. Brown as an afterthought. Although the Packers selected him third among their 2018 picks at wideout behind J'Mon Moore and Valdes-Scantling, he led the team in yards per reception (15.6) among pass-catchers with at least 15 receptions.
St. Brown flashed big-play ability with a limited workload, playing 358 offensive snaps last year. Because of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' propensity to take shots downfield, we could see the 6'5", 214-pound wide receiver take on a bigger role in his second season.
Houston Texans: DL Charles Omenihu
Interior defenders Brandon Dunn and D.J. Reader started alongside defensive end J.J. Watt last season; they'll play through contract years in 2019. The Houston Texans can look past one of the veterans toward the future if Charles Omenihu flashes during the summer.
In 2018, Omenihu flourished as a senior at Texas, recording 18 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. He's a potential three-down lineman capable of reaching the backfield with a quick first step and strong-arm tactics.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel made note of Omenihu's physical traits and versatility after an OTA session. "He's got some height, he's got some strength and he's got quickness," Crennel said. "He can play inside, and he can play outside. So, I think if he continues to work, he might have a chance to make a contribution."
Defensive line coach Anthony Weaver called Omenihu "very raw" in his early assessment, which suggests the rookie has a long pathway toward a starting role. However, if the former Longhorn puts his skill set together for a total package, we could see him in the rotation more than expected this season.
Indianapolis Colts: DB Marvell Tell III
At USC, Marvell Tell III played safety, but the Colts gave him plenty of reps at outside cornerback during spring practices, per Andrew Walker of the team's official website.
"A second-unit defensive look we saw on Wednesday ... Jalen Collins and Marvell Tell III (outside) and Nate Hairston (nickel) at cornerback; and Khari Willis and Matthias Farley at safety," Walker wrote, adding: "Willis and Tell III were seen getting reps at safety and cornerback with the first-unit defense."
Tell isn't necessarily out of position on the perimeter because of his skill set. After the draft, he discussed his early experience at cornerback and a particular focus on tracking the ball in college with reporters. "I played corner in high school," he said. "I worked on my cover skills a little bit as a safety in college. So it's not anything foreign to me at all."
We shouldn't doubt Tell's ability to grasp outside cover concepts on the pro level, but a permanent move to the perimeter would give him more competition for a starting role as Pierre Desir, Hairston and Quincy Wilson all vie for spots behind Kenny Moore II. Rookie second-rounder Rock Ya-Sin practiced in the nickelback spot during the spring.
At safety, Tell would have to beat Clayton Geathers and Matthias Farley for a starting role alongside Malik Hooker. He could still see reps at that position, but the coaching staff seems fixed on using him at cornerback. Assuming that sticks, the former Trojan could use his size (6'2", 198 lbs) to challenge receivers on the outside.
Tell's upside places him in the mix to take a top-three cornerback spot in the nickel defense.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR DJ Chark Jr.
The Jaguars signed Nick Foles and cut ties with Blake Bortles. A new quarterback likely means a fresh slate for the wide receiver corps. The 30-year-old Foles will build fresh connections with a relatively young group.
DJ Chark Jr., a 2018 second-rounder, will have an opportunity to make an early impression after a quiet rookie term with 14 catches for 174 yards.
Thus far, wideout Chris Conley seems like the front-runner to take a spot in the top three with Dede Westbrook and Marqise Lee—if Lee fully recovers from a torn ACL. ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco called Conley the Jaguars' best receiver through mandatory minicamp.
Phillip Heilman of the Florida Times-Union noticed budding chemistry between Foles and two other receivers as well. "He's looked most comfortable throwing to Chris Conley, DJ Chark and Keelan Cole and has mostly been sharp throughout the offseason program," Heilman wrote.
Head coach Doug Marrone doesn't expect Lee to take the field at the beginning of training camp, which gives Chark an opportunity to battle Cole for first-team reps in three-wide receiver sets.
If Chark stands out, he may push to expand his role going into the regular season. The LSU product can haul in big catches. The 6'4", 198-pound speedster averaged 20.5 yards per reception on the collegiate level.
Kansas City Chiefs: LB Damien Wilson
The Kansas City Chiefs acquired linebacker Darron Lee via trade with the New York Jets, which creates serious competition for the three base linebacker positions. According to The Athletic's Nate Taylor, Anthony Hitchens lists as the only lock to open the season with the first unit in that group as Lee competes with Reggie Ragland and Damien Wilson.
"The position appears to still be fluid for [defensive coordinator Steve] Spagnuolo, as Hitchens is the lone unquestioned starter," Taylor wrote. "Ragland, Wilson and Lee could all be starters at some point this season with [Dorian] O'Daniel as a situational option."
Wilson spent four seasons with the Cowboys and quietly put together a decent 2018 campaign for a reserve defender, recording a career-high 28 solo tackles and a sack. While that's not much on paper, he would see an uptick in production as a starter alongside Hitchens and Ragland or Lee.
Wilson hasn't shown notable coverage skills, but he could line up in the middle with Ragland on the strong side if Lee doesn't pan out as a starter. The four-year veteran projects as a downhill, chase-down linebacker capable of boosting last year's 27th-ranked run defense.
Los Angeles Chargers: LB Kyzir White
Kyzir White had a strong start to his rookie term, registering 12 solo tackles, two pass breakups and an interception in three starts, but he needed a knee scope and landed on injured reserve in November.
White played safety at West Virginia, but Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley used him in an outside linebacker role. Even though he transitioned well, the former Mountaineer must adjust again, as the team has had him put in work at "Mike" linebacker:
"Whatever the team needs me to do, I'm willing to do. (I feel like I'm in more of a leadership role) definitely now that they've got me playing some MIKE. I have to be more vocal and stuff like that, just know what everybody's doing…. I feel pretty comfortable. I'm still learning as I go, day by day. But I'm definitely feeling a lot better than I did when I first got put out there at the MIKE."
The Chargers front office re-signed Denzel Perryman and inked Thomas Davis to two-year deals. Both veterans could play a majority of the defensive snaps at linebacker, but that's not a given because of injury history and age.
Perryman battled knee, hamstring and ankle injuries the last two campaigns, missing 16 contests in that period. Thomas turned 36 years old in March, and he served a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs last year. Perhaps the 14-year veteran takes on a rotational role at this stage in his career.
White's transition adds more difficulty to his pathway toward a starting spot, but he showed the ability to adapt as a rookie. If he continues to pick up his new role, the versatile linebacker may open as a starter in the middle of the defense.
Los Angeles Rams: OL Jamil Demby
The Los Angeles Rams may have a notable comeback story in the works. The front office selected Jamil Demby in the sixth round of last year's draft but waived him a couple of days before the start of the 2018 campaign.
The Detroit Lions claimed Demby, waived him and added him to the practice squad, but the Rams then signed the Maine product in December. Perhaps Los Angeles righted a wrong move. At a press conference, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer seemed pleased to have the 23-year-old back on the roster:
"He had the opportunity last year to go away and come back, and we both appreciate each other more from that separation and coming back, and that has allowed us to grow at a faster rate. Jamil has played four or five spots, actually—he's getting reps at all five at this point—so we feel strongly about what he's done in this offseason."
The Rams lost two key starters on the offensive line: center John Sullivan (the Rams declined to pick up his option) and left guard Rodger Saffold (signed with the Tennessee Titans). Although Brian Allen and Joseph Noteboom took first-team reps in those positions, Demby could step into one of those roles as a potential backup plan.
Noteboom and Allen played fewer than 80 snaps in their rookie terms, and the former played tackle at TCU. Neither has a stronghold on the open offensive line spots. Demby's ability to play multiple positions provides him a chance to steal one of the starting spots from the front-runners presumed to fill the vacancies.
Miami Dolphins: RT Isaiah Prince
In March, right tackle Ja'Wuan James signed with the Broncos, which left a wide-open spot on the perimeter of the offensive line.
The Miami Dolphins selected Isaiah Prince in the sixth round of this year's draft. Because of his collegiate experience as a three-year starter at right tackle, he could emerge as a late-round gem during the summer.
The Dolphins signed offensive tackles Jordan Mills and Zach Sterup to compete for the starting spot. During mandatory minicamp, Jesse Davis moved from right guard to tackle, joining the competition.
The coaching staff's decision to move Davis outside doesn't seem like a one-off practice experiment. He talked about finding his groove at right tackle going forward, per South Florida Sun Sentinel's Safid Deen. "Right now, it's just about getting comfortable back there," he said. "I haven't played tackle for a year-and-a-half."
Based on Davis' comments, we can expect him to remain at right tackle during training camp, but he must warm up to the sudden transition. Prince's solid play in the trenches at a powerhouse program gives him some hope to turn heads in the coming weeks.
Minnesota Vikings: DT Jalyn Holmes
The Minnesota Vikings allowed defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to walk during free agency, opening competition in the middle of the front line. Jalyn Holmes, a 2018 fourth-rounder, flashed on the interior over the last two years at Ohio State before a nondescript rookie term. He'll battle a returning veteran for the open spot.
Minnesota signed defensive tackle Shamar Stephen to a three-year, 12.5 million deal; he rejoins the team that selected him in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. The 28-year-old spent one year with the Seahawks and started 14 of 15 contests.
According to Mike Wobschall of the Vikings' official website, the team seems comfortable with Stephen lining up alongside Linval Joseph with Holmes taking on a rotational role.
"Joseph and Stephen give the Vikings a great tandem when it comes to run defense, but 3rd-and-long is about pressuring the passer and that means one or two other linemen, such as Holmes, Jaleel Johnson and/or Hercules Mata’afa or rookie Armon Watts, could get into the mix," Wobschall wrote.
As Wobschall suggests, Stephen should have the first shot at replacing Richardson. Holmes can carve out a niche role, but he's also capable of moving up the depth chart with his potential to reach the quarterback, which is important for a 3-technique defensive tackle.
Keep in mind Holmes has experience rushing off the edge on the collegiate level, which may help him win one-on-one matchups inside.
New England Patriots: LT Yodny Cajuste
Last year, Trent Brown protected quarterback Tom Brady's blind side, and he performed well enough to earn the highest salary among offensive linemen. The New England Patriots will shuffle the deck at left tackle in consecutive years.
Rookie third-rounder Yodny Cajuste could claim the position, but he's going up against a former high draft pick on the mend.
The Patriots selected Isaiah Wynn with the 23rd overall pick in the 2018 draft. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia expected him to compete for the starting role at left tackle, but he tore his Achilles in Week 1 of the preseason, which allowed Brown to run away with the job.
According to the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian, Wynn didn't participate in spring workouts but kept his spirits up. "Wynn was present for camp but was held out of team drills," she wrote. "He said he felt good."
Unfortunately for Cajuste, he couldn't take advantage of Wynn's limited availability in mandatory minicamp. The West Virginia product had to rehab a quadriceps injury that required surgery in March.
If Cajuste participates in training camp without restrictions and Wynn takes gradual steps to a full workload, the rookie may have a lane to the starting left tackle spot.
New Orleans Saints: S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson swiped nine interceptions through three terms at Florida and looks like a ball-tracking magnet on his collegiate tape. Head coach Sean Payton sees him as a candidate to start in the nickel defense, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett.
"The 5'11", 210-pounder from Florida has mixed in at times with the first-string nickel defense—and Payton mentioned him as being in that mix for playing time with veteran nickelbacks such as Patrick Robinson and P.J. Williams," Triplett wrote.
Gardner-Johnson didn't waste time asserting himself on the field in the early stages of the New Orleans Saints' offseason program. Although he's not in the pole position, the rookie fourth-rounder can leapfrog Williams—because of Williams' coverage inconsistencies—and Robinson, who's recovering from a broken ankle.
The Saints only logged 12 interceptions last year. Gardner-Johnson's nose for the football could boost this unit with timely takeaways.
New York Giants: CB Julian Love
In 2018, Grant Haley handled primary slot cornerback duties, starting nine out of 10 contests in defensive coordinator James Bettcher's system. He logged 29 solo tackles and two pass breakups.
While DeAndre Baker competes to start opposite Janoris Jenkins, the Giants may have another rookie cornerback take on a huge role in his first year. According to Dan Salomone of the team's official website, Julian Love flashed during mandatory minicamp.
"The rookie fourth-round draft pick broke up two early in team drills before the levee broke and he intercepted a Daniel Jones pass," Salomone wrote.
Even though that's just a glimpse into Love's spring performances, he exhibited similar air-tight coverage skills at Notre Dame, registering 39 pass breakups and five interceptions through three terms.
Haley's nondescript year in the slot shouldn't keep Love out of serious contention to start in the nickel defense. The 5'11", 195-pound cover man has the quickness and field awareness to line up inside and disrupt short-to-intermediate throws.
New York Jets: OT Chuma Edoga
The New York Jets added help for the offensive line, selecting tackle Chuma Edoga in the third round. He spent most of his collegiate career on the right side at USC. Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, had a first-round grade on him, per ESPN.com's Rich Cimini.
"We had a bunch of first-round offensive linemen [in Mobile, Alabama] and I thought Chuma had the best week of any of them," Nagy said. "Really, if there weren't some of those questions coming out of the fall about some of the makeup stuff with Chuma, he might have been a first-round pick."
USC suspended Edoga for one game because he violated team rules. Nevertheless, as a Day 2 pick, he's a good value selection for the Jets in terms of talent at his draft position.
In December, right tackle Brandon Shell suffered a season-ending knee injury, but he participated in team drills during OTAs. The third-year veteran could return in full capacity at training camp, but that's not a guarantee. If the 27-year-old needs more time before taking the field at full strength, Edoga may have a route to the starting spot.
Based on Nagy's assessment, Edoga comes into the league as one of the top offensive linemen. Because of his experience at right tackle, the Jets have to consider him a candidate to start if Shell isn't quite ready for the regular season.
Oakland Raiders: DT P.J. Hall
The Raiders have a deep group on the interior of the defensive line. Last year, the Silver and Black selected P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst in the second and fifth rounds of the draft, respectively. Johnathan Hankins re-signed with the club. Justin Ellis will return after missing the 2018 campaign with sprained ligaments in his foot.
In 2018, Hurst registered a team-high four sacks, which doesn't say much for a defense that logged 13 in total, but he's likely solidified a prominent role after starting 10 games last year.
Ellis' return may affect the workload of Hall, who flashed as a run-stopper at the end of his rookie campaign. The veteran has been the Raiders' best defender against the ground attack in recent seasons.
It's worth noting that defensive line coach Brentson Buckner won't restrict his interior tackles to specific duties, per Kyle Martin of the team's official website.
"Every D-line coach has good technique, even [Coach Mike Trgovac] last year, but like I said he just wants us active," Ellis said. "Be active, don’t be labeled to one position, like nose guard. We going to play defensive tackle, we going to play 3-technique, slide to the 4."
Oakland will need versatile big bodies in the trenches to inject life into the pass rush, which bodes well for Hall, who recorded 42 sacks at Sam Houston State.
Philadelphia Eagles: WR Mack Hollins
Mack Hollins flashed glimpses of potential during his rookie term, converting 22 targets into 16 receptions for 226 yards and a touchdown. At 6'4" and 221 pounds, he's an intriguing asset in the passing attack.
The Philadelphia Eagles acquired DeSean Jackson via trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; he'll likely list in one of the top three wideout positions with Alshon Jeffery. If the front office keeps Nelson Agholor, he'll serve as the primary slot receiver. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, team brass has listened to offers for him.
The Eagles could trade Agholor and elevate Hollins or rookie second-rounder J.J. Arcega-Whiteside into the No. 3 spot.
Hollins continues to work his way back from sports hernia surgery. According to Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer, he hasn't participated in anything other than individual drills during the spring. If he takes the field in late July, the 25-year-old could hold off Arcega-Whiteside for the slot position if the team opts to trade Agholor.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Ryan Switzer
As JuJu Smith-Schuster moves into the No. 1 spot at wide receiver, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have plenty of options for the slot position. James Washington, Ryan Switzer, Eli Rogers and Diontae Johnson all fit into the mix. Donte Moncrief has lined up on the perimeter most of his career.
According to The Athletic's Mark Kaboly, we should keep an eye on Switzer in the slot. He's put his best on display this offseason.
"It's between Switzer and Rogers for the spot and I can tell you this: Switzer made a lot of plays during the spring, and it doesn’t hurt if the franchise quarterback has taken a liking to [him]," Kaboly wrote.
Switzer started his career with the Cowboys as a fourth-round pick but served primarily in kick and punt returner roles. Dallas traded him to Oakland, and the Raiders sent him to Pittsburgh—three teams in two years.
Last season, Switzer converted 44 targets into 36 receptions, 253 yards and a touchdown. He's picked up from the 2018 term as a serious contender to win a spot in three-wide receiver sets. The 24-year-old faces stiff competition, but his quickness and reliable hands should keep him at the forefront of this battle.
San Francisco 49ers: S Tarvarius Moore
The San Francisco 49ers have multiple question marks at safety. Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward have struggled with a myriad of injuries in the past few seasons—the latter fractured his collarbone during OTAs.
Following Ward's latest injury, the 49ers moved Tarvarius Moore to safety—his collegiate position at Southern Mississippi. According to defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks (h/t NBCS Bay Area's Matt Maiocco), he's embraced the transition.
"He's a guy who doesn't show his emotion as much," Bullocks said. "When I told him, he just smiled. And after the first practice, I asked him, 'How did it feel?' He told me, 'It’s good to be home.' He was excited."
Bullocks thinks Moore belongs at the position after studying his collegiate tape. “His best fit I think is free safety," he said. “We all evaluated him in college, and we liked him because he was playing free safety."
Last year, Moore started two contests at cornerback. For the season, he logged 20 solo tackles and two pass breakups. Now back in his natural role, the 2018 third-rounder could push for first-unit snaps.
Because of Tartt's and Ward's spotty availability, Moore seems like a potential sleeper to start if he stays healthy and showcases his talent.
Seattle Seahawks: S Delano Hill
At safety, the Seahawks have one projected starter, Bradley McDougald.
In April, general manager John Schneider drafted safeties Marquise Blair (second round) and Ugochukwu Amadi (fourth round) to bolster the secondary. According to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, the latter saw reps in the slot during rookie minicamp—a development to keep an eye on this summer.
Among the roster holdovers, Tedric Thompson and Delano Hill will have opportunities to lock down the spot alongside McDougald. Carroll didn't reveal a front-runner for the position at a post-mandatory minicamp press conference because of key absences.
"It's a little bit difficult because [McDougald] is not out there. Bradley really has been the leader and the best communicator for us and just the experience and all of that. And then Hill hasn’t been there, and [he] made a big push at the end of the year, and he's a guy really thinks in the mix. So we're going to have to reserve judgment a little bit in how it’s going to wind up in the starting spot."
Last year, Thompson started 10 games at safety, but he didn't show enough to solidify himself as a long-term starter, logging three pass breakups and an interception.
Hill, a 2017 third-rounder, has 15 solo tackles and one pass breakup in two seasons. Because of his recovery from injury, the 23-year-old has a lot of ground to make up for a bigger role, but Carroll highlighted late 2018 promising glimpses that will keep his name alive in this competition.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Scotty Miller
The Buccaneers traded Jackson and allowed Adam Humphries to walk during free agency, opening a spot in three-wide receiver sets alongside Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
If not fourth-year veteran Breshad Perriman, the Buccaneers could see an under-the-radar candidate emerge for the No. 3 position. Quarterback Jameis Winston praised Scotty Miller for his spring performances, per Scott Smith of the team's official website.
"Winston says Miller has been fantastic in practice. Very quick and fast. Working hard to potentially replace Humphries' production," Smith tweeted.
The Buccaneers selected Miller in the sixth round of this year's draft. He had a breakout senior year at Bowling Green, recording 71 receptions for 1,148 yards and nine touchdowns. He's an athletic small-school prospect who can burn defenders with 4.39-second 40-yard speed, which he logged at his pro day, per NFL.com's Lance Zierlein.
With Winston's eye on him, Miller could impress and move into Humphries' old role, providing a catch-and-run threat on short, quick throws.
Tennessee Titans: S Amani Hooker
The Tennessee Titans can use Amani Hooker's versatility to fill blind areas on defense. He can compensate for injuries at linebacker and both safety positions. The Iowa product also possesses the coverage skills to take on specific assignments in pass defense.
Looking at Hooker's collegiate tape, he lined up all over the field, and his fluid responsibilities have prepared him for the pros. "Doesn’t look like a rookie," Jim Wyatt of Titansonline.com wrote. "Has really good instincts, and is very mature as a player for his first two months on the job."
If Hooker continues to impress during the summer, the Titans can cut cornerback Logan Ryan and save $9.5 million, per Over the Cap. That move would elevate the rookie into the slot this season.
Over the last two campaigns, Ryan's production has dropped compared to his years with the Patriots. He's logged 19 pass breakups without an interception in Tennessee.
The Titans may roll with the cheaper option—a rookie who can match Ryan's production. Hooker registered nine pass breakups and six interceptions between his sophomore and junior terms at Iowa.
Washington Redskins: S Troy Apke
Going into the 2018 draft, Troy Apke garnered buzz because of his athleticism, and the Redskins selected him in the fourth round. During his rookie term, he only suited up for two games and didn't play a single defensive snap.
This offseason, Apke will battle Montae Nicholson and Deshazor Everett for a starting role alongside All-Pro safety Landon Collins.
Nicholson started the first seven games of the last campaign. Then the Washington Redskins acquired Ha Ha Clinton-Dix via trade with the Packers, and he started the last nine contests at safety. Everett opened three outings with the first unit.
Clinton-Dix signed with the Bears, which explains the vacancy in the secondary.
Head coach Jay Gruden took note of Apke's strides during the spring, per Jake Kring-Schreifels and Kyle Stackpole of Redskins.com. "Apke is doing well," he said. "It's been good to see him get a lot of these reps and work. Obviously last year he didn't get a whole lot with his hamstring, so he's progressing nicely."
Apke's healthy hamstring could become his springboard into a starting role over Nicholson and Everett.